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August 28, 2012

For Those Senior Moments: Chocolate

Seniors who took higher concentrations of cocoa flavanols had significant improvements on a variety of cognitive tests.

Chocolate is not just easy on your taste buds; it may help keep you sharp mentally, too. Researchers in Italy have found that the flavanols in cocoa may improve mild cognitive impairment, the memory loss that often precedes dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Study participants drinking cocoa drinks with higher concentrations of flavanols had significantly higher overall cognitive scores compared to those whose drinks had a lower flavanol concentration.

The researchers didn't hand out candy bars. They assigned 90 older persons with mild cognitive impairment to drink 990 (high), 520 (intermediate), or 45 (low) milligrams of a dairy-based cocoa flavanol drink every day for 8 weeks. During the study, participants did not consume other sources of flavanols. The investigators used standard neuropsychological tests to evaluate cognitive function.

Scores significantly improved in the ability to relate visual stimuli to motor responses, working memory, task-switching, and verbal memory among those drinking the high- and intermediate-concentration flavanol drinks. Study participants drinking cocoa drinks with higher concentrations of flavanols had significantly higher overall cognitive scores compared to those whose drinks had a lower flavanol concentration. .

People drinking high and intermediate levels of flavanols also had a decrease in insulin resistance, blood pressure, and oxidative stress. This finding would make sense: a recent review of the scientific literature study found that the flavanols in cocoa were associated with a decrease in blood pressure.

“I was somewhat surprised because it was a relatively small sample and, using well-established psychological tests. They found some pretty strong evidence that flavanols improve cognitive functioning,” Rachel Johnson, the Robert L. Bickford, Jr. Green and Gold Professor of Nutrition and a professor of medicine at the University of Vermont, told TheDoctor.

Johnson, who was not involved in the current study, says that she thinks the next step is repeating this study with larger samples and more diverse populations, and trying to determine just how flavanols work.

The Italian team suggest that flavanols may protect brain cells from injury, improving their metabolism, and their interaction with the molecular structure responsible for memory. Flavanols may also act indirectly by improving blood flow in the brain.

Foods that are rich in flavanols, such as tea, grapes, and red wine in moderation, are healthy foods. “I think it is certainly worth a try to fit these foods into a healthy diet,” says Johnson.

She goes on to say that you want to look for products that contain a high concentration of flavanols, such as dark chocolate, which has a high percentage of cocoa powder. “These foods are part of an already heart-healthy diet. I would say... give it a try.”

The study was published in the journal Hypertension.

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